What Was the Open Door Policy in China? Definition and Impact

Open Door Policy with China
Uncle Sam stands on map of China which is being cut up by German, Italy, England, Russia, and France. Illus. in: Puck, Aug 23, 1899.

Public Domain / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The Open Door Policy was a major statement of United States foreign policy issued in 1899 and 1900 intended to protect the rights of all countries to trade equally with China and confirming multi-national acknowledgment of China’s administrative and territorial sovereignty. Proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and supported by President William McKinley, the Open Door Policy formed the foundation of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia for more than 40 years.

Key Takeaways: The Open Door Policy

  • The Open Door Policy was a proposal put forth by the United States in 1899 intended to ensure that all countries be allowed to trade freely with China.
  • The Open Door Policy was circulated among Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay.
  • Though it was never formally ratified as a treaty, the Open Door Policy shaped U.S. foreign policy in Asia for decades.

What Was the Open Door Policy and What Drove It?

As articulated by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay in his Open Door Note of September 6, 1899, and circulated between representatives of Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia, the Open Door Policy proposed that all countries should maintain free and equal access to all of China’s coastal ports of trade as had previously been stipulated by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking ending the First Opium War.

The free trade policy of the Nanking Treaty held well into the late 19th century. However, the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 left coastal China in jeopardy of being divided and colonized by the imperialistic European powers competing to develop “spheres of influence” in the region. Having recently acquired control of the Philippine Islands and Guam in the Spanish–American War of 1898, the United States hoped to increase its own presence in Asia by expanding its political and commercial interests in China. Fearing it might lose its chance to trade with the lucrative markets of China if the European powers succeeded in partitioning the country, the United States put forth Open Door Policy.

As circulated among the European powers by Secretary of State John Hay, the Open Door Policy provided that:

  1. All nations, including the United States, should be allowed reciprocal free access to any Chinese port or commercial market. 
  2. Only the Chinese government should be allowed to collect trade-related taxes and tariffs.
  3. None of the powers having a sphere of influence in China should be allowed to avoid paying harbor or railroad fees.

In a turn of diplomatic irony, Hay circulated the Open Door Policy at the same time the U.S. government was taking extreme measures to stop Chinese immigration to the United States. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had imposed a 10-year moratorium on the immigration of Chinese laborers, effectively eliminating opportunities for Chinese merchants and workers in the United States.

China free trade
British satire comic depicting Open Door Policy for free trade in China. From Punch's Almanack 1899. iStock / Getty Images Plu

Reaction to the Open Door Policy

To say the least, Hay’s Open Door Policy was not eagerly received. Each European country hesitated to even consider it until all of the other countries had agreed to it. Undaunted, Hay announced in July 1900 that all of the European powers had agreed “in principle” to the terms of the policy.

On October 6, 1900, Britain and Germany tacitly endorsed the Open Door Policy by signing the Yangtze Agreement, stating that both nations would oppose the further political division of China into foreign spheres of influence. However, the failure of Germany to keep the agreement led to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, in which Britain and Japan agreed to help each other safeguard their respective interests in China and Korea. Intended to halt Russia’s imperialistic expansion in Eastern Asia, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance shaped British and Japanese policy in Asia until the end of World War I in 1919.

While various multinational trade treaties ratified after 1900 referred to the Open Door Policy, the major powers continued to compete with each other for special concessions for railroad and mining rights, ports, and other commercial interests in China.

After the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 failed to drive foreign interests from China, Russia invaded the Japanese-held Chinese region of Manchuria. In 1902, the administration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt protested the Russian incursion as a violation of the Open Door Policy. When Japan took control of southern Manchuria from Russia after the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the United States and Japan pledged to maintain the Open Door policy of trade equality in Manchuria.

The End of the Open Door Policy

In 1915, Japan’s Twenty-one Demands to China violated the Open Door Policy by preserving Japanese control over key Chinese mining, transportation, and shipping centers. In 1922, the U.S.-driven Washington Naval Conference resulted in the Nine-Power Treaty reaffirming the Open Door principles.

In reaction to the Mukden Incident of 1931 in Manchuria and the Second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan in 1937, the United States intensified its support of the Open Door Policy. Prophetically, the U.S. further tightened its embargoes on oil, scrap metal, and other essential commodities exported to Japan. The embargoes contributed to Japan’s declaration of war against the United States hours before the December 7, 1947, attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II.

The World War II defeat of Japan in 1945, combined with the communist takeover of China after the Chinese Revolution of 1949, which effectively ended all opportunities for trade to foreigners, left the Open Door Policy meaningless a full half a century after it had been conceived.

China’s Modern Open Door Policy

In December 1978, the new leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping, announced the country’s own version of the Open Door Policy by literally opening its formally-closed doors to foreign businesses. During the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s Special Economic Zones allowed the modernization China’s industry needed to attract foreign investments.

Between 1978 and 1989, China rose from 32nd to 13th in the world in export volume, roughly doubling its overall world trade. By 2010, the World Trade Organization (WTO) reported that China had a 10.4% share of the world market, with merchandise export sales of more than $1.5 trillion, the highest in the world. In 2010, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest trading nation with total imports and exports valued at $4.16 trillion for the year.

The decision to encourage and support foreign trade and investment proved a turning point in China’s economic fortunes setting it on the path to becoming the “World’s Factory” it is today.

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "What Was the Open Door Policy in China? Definition and Impact." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/open-door-policy-definition-4767079. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). What Was the Open Door Policy in China? Definition and Impact. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/open-door-policy-definition-4767079 Longley, Robert. "What Was the Open Door Policy in China? Definition and Impact." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/open-door-policy-definition-4767079 (accessed March 21, 2023).